Will ET Drink Water? – Issue 25: Water

A team of astronomers announced this year that they had found no fewer than eight planets orbiting the so-called Goldilocks zone around their parent stars, inside which the temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life as we know it on Earth. Two of these, called Kepler-438b and Kepler-442b, are the most Earth-like candidates yet seen among the 1,900 or so exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) now known to exist.

“Earth-like” means, in part, that a planet has a good chance of carrying liquid water—something more likely to be true inside the Goldilocks zone. “Follow the water” has become a mantra for astrobiologists seeking signs of life elsewhere in the cosmos. With the new ability to detect the characteristic fingerprint of water in the light reflected from the atmospheres of exoplanets, some astronomers hope to spot a world that hosts life soon.

But is liquid water really necessary to life?

There’s a long history to the belief that it is. In 1913, the Harvard biochemist Lawrence Henderson proposed a curious inversion of Darwinian evolution, in which organisms become “fit” for their environment by adaptation. Henderson’s book The Fitness of the Environment argued that the…

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